Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White announces a special public event and an exclusive film for our project, courtesy of award-winning poet Sasha Dugdale. Sasha’s recent poem Joy brings us the voice of Catherine Blake, wife to William Blake and ‘vital presence and assistant throughout his life’.
And he is gone, fled singing to some place I cannot reach. His angels came and he sang to them and they told him they needed him more than I did… Merciless, merciless angels… Merciless angels who know nothing of human despair. And he went with them. He nodded and spoke mild words and was soon gone… And he left a shadow of grime on his collar and a warm bed. And the angels had tall wings, like steeples, or like sails and spread white like the King’s ship in dock, and they took him, only I couldn’t see them, but I know how they looked, for hadn’t he spent all his life in their company and mine? And didn’t they sometimes appear in white like good children, and sometimes like ladies but barefoot, with rosy pink staining their necks and hands and ringlets in their hair? Their sighs were angel swords and their smiles were beams of light. He smiled at me, as if to say can’t you see how bonny they are today, on this, my death day, and there’s the whole pity of it, for I couldn’t see, and I never could.
— from Joy, by Sasha Dugdale
And so spake Catherine Blake, reflecting back upon the life and death of her life-long husband William in 1827; or so writes Sasha Dugdale, poet and translator, who in this wondrous monologue gives voice to one of the most silent muses the world has known — who inspired steadily her vacillating husband-genius, is known to have helped him print and paint his masterpieces, and to whom he dedicated much of his writings.
The monologue and its volume of other poems, Joy, won the Forward Prize for best single poem in 2016, and was described by the judges as “an extraordinarily sustained visionary piece of writing”. Sasha has written three other collections of poetry, is known for her promotion and translation of Russian literature, and is co-director of the Winchester Poetry Festival. She is currently poet-in-residence at St John’s College, Cambridge.
We at Finding Blake are delighted to announce that we will be exclusively filming Sasha reading her monologue, to be premiered here on our website and in the final Finding Blake film to be released later this year. On the same day — 11th April, at 7pm — Sasha will be giving a public reading of some of Joy and other work. The venue is a wonderful Victorian engineer’s house, undergoing restoration in the grounds of the Cambridge Museum of Technology by the River Cam. The house — now named ‘Othersyde’, with its lovely gardens and outdoor bar with views across the river onto a nature reserve in the heart of the city — is a new arts and escape rooms venue that I’ve been involved with for some time. This event is the finale of a winter series of literary & musical salons.
The event is on Thursday April 11th at 7pm. All welcome, though early booking essential as it’s a cosy intimate venue — with only 25 seats! Booking info is here, and then please email me for a Paypal link to secure your ticket.
For further information on Catherine Blake, see Wikipedia, and there is an essay on her by Angus Whitehead at the Blake Archive.
For further information about Sasha Dugdale, see her Wikipedia page. You can enjoy another excerpt from Joy at the Forward Arts Foundation, (where there is also an interview with her), and here is a review from the Poetry School. The collection Joy (2017) is published by Carcanet Press, and was Winner of the 2017 Poetry Book Society Winter Choice Award; the poem Joy was Winner of the 2016 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem.
To find out more about Othersyde, visit their Facebook page.
In the first post in her series marking publication of her Blakean novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios, writer and translator Adriana Díaz-Enciso shared her unexpected introduction to William Blake on a family shopping trip from Mexico to Texas. Adriana now continues the story, recalling her adventures breaking into Blake’s world — and Blake’s London: attempting to understand the writings, images and vision of a man she felt to be a free spirit with an instinctive leaning to the force of excess in art. “He overwhelmed me, fascinated and provoked me. I wanted Blake. But I didn’t have him.”
At some point, I thought that maybe if I translated him, I would manage to break into his world. I therefore translated his early series of poems to the Seasons. The translations were published in a poetry leaflet, to the editorial board of which I had been generously invited by older and much wiser poets than me. Its name was Magia Menor, after Borges’ verse, “To write a poem is to work a minor magic.” It was beautifully printed, a work of love, and I wish that my copies had not been lost when, many years later, I left Mexico. I would like to read those translations of mine now, even if I fear they weren’t that good. The fact was, in any case, that I still hadn’t managed to fully grasp Blake.
When I had moved to Mexico City, several years after those first translations, I once thought that the only way through was to translate the whole of Blake’s poems. I never got to start. It was such a daunting venture… After all, one of Mexico’s most deservedly beloved poets, Xavier Villaurrutia, had made a humbler attempt with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and who was I to try the harder stuff?
Still, I kept on pulling my Penguin edition from the shelf and reading, until it was so battered I had to replace it with another copy, this time with Elohim Creating Adam on the cover. Wondering what it was that this poetry kept on withholding from me, I was nevertheless convinced that it was of infinite value.
Beginnings of a Blakean novel
For a while I let the matter rest… a bit. But I couldn’t forget altogether that Blake’s work was waiting for me. When in 1995-6 I was writing lyrics for Babel, the third album by Mexican rock band Santa Sabina, I thought the album required Blake to make a brief appearance, and this materialised in a kind of ‘sound collage’ of his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Baudelaire’s Les Litanies de Satan and a text of my own. And I read on. Slowly, I was getting closer.
Then, around 1997, I started making notes for what would then be my third novel.
Its subject would be a question: what is the meaning of human pain? I was then reading lots of what we may call hermetic writings: Paracelsus, works on alchemy, Giordano Bruno and Frances Yates’ work on him and the Hermetic tradition. This reading material obeyed a longing. Like so many others before me, I was looking for a transcendent meaning of human life. I also wanted to know whether the seemingly inexhaustible pain endured by humanity could be lived and understood in such a way that we could rise above it and find healing in wisdom and compassion so great that they would escape description.
There was a strong Christian element in my wondering, via Julian of Norwich, St Theresa of Avila and other Christian mystics, though I was also eagerly reading Sufi sages such as Ibn ‘Arabi, Rumi, Al-Ghazālī, and Henri Corbin’s works on both Avicenna and the ancient Iranian mystic tradition, with its archetypal Celestial Earth and the imaginal world. I couldn’t fail to see the evident coincidences between the concept of imagination elucidated by Corbin and that of William Blake.
The Christian preoccupation can partly be explained by the fact that I was raised a Catholic, attending a nuns’ school from age seven to 18. I had always been drawn to the figure of Christ, and I guess that I sincerely tried to be a fervent Christian, but soon the Church itself stood in my way. Its motions seemed empty to me, devoid of the mystery of serious ritual. Also, as my social awareness developed, I found the obvious link between mainstream Catholicism and power in Mexico; how the Church, save few exceptions, had become allied to the most conservative and un-Christian mores. I quietly stepped out of the Church, but I wanted to be fervent. I kept on being fascinated by Christ, even if the literal interpretation of his being the son of a divine Father was always hard for me. What took a hold on me was that most beautiful symbol of a god who becomes human to share man’s pain (rather than atoning for his sins). The more I read Blake, the more I agreed with his unique vision of Christ.
Soon, the idea started to take root in me that this novel should have the work of William Blake as its foundations.
Then, on 22 December 1997, a horrid massacre took place in the village of Acteal, Chiapas (a state in South East Mexico), when 45 indigenous people — including children and pregnant women — who belonged to the pacifist group Las Abejas were murdered by a paramilitary group while they were praying. The horror of this attack shook the country, and I couldn’t stop wondering whether such extreme suffering, and the impunity which followed the crime, could be just an occurrence in an indifferent universe; whether there was no transcendence, no redemption, no meaning.
And it was then that, fifteen years after finding Blake in a shopping mall in Texas, the meaning of his prophetic poems truly opened its gates for me. Acteal would become a pivotal point in my novel, and by then it was clear that the book would draw on precisely those poems which had eluded me for so long as its main source of inspiration. Their characters would be the novel’s characters. That was the beginning of twenty further years pondering on Blake.
I took Blake with me, briefly, back to the USA: in the Spring of 1998 I was granted a writing residency at what was then called Ledig House International Writers’ Colony, to write the Blakean novel. I carried with me my Blake, my hermetic books, my grief over the multiplied bloodshed in my country, and my pondering. It was in the idyllic landscape of upstate New York where the first draft of the novel was finished. I don’t remember how many weeks I spent there. Six, perhaps? I had never before had such a chance to concentrate on my writing with no distractions, surrounded by nature, sharing the findings and the pitfalls of the process with other writers from many different countries. I remember those weeks as one of the moments in my life that Satan cannot find.
A week in New York City followed, the novel still close against me while I sensed that my brief sojourn in heaven was quickly shifting into something less luminous.
Blake’s London calling
I returned to Mexico City, which seemed burdened with the weight of violence, and enveloped in my own sadness as I confronted the collapse of my marriage. A nearly fatal pneumonia put a stop to work of any kind for a few months, and the end of 1998 passed by in a kind of blur marked by loss, grief, and the minutiae of convalescence. By January 1999 the doctor declared me out of danger, and that’s when I decided to leave Mexico, as suddenly as the other changes in my life had taken place. The answer to where I would go was obvious: London, of course, that “Human awful wonder of God.”
It was London because of all the literature by Londoners or set in London that I had read since I was little; it was London because of Virginia Woolf, thanks to whom I had been driven to take my writing seriously; it was London because of my beloved Charles Dickens, and it was London because of those visionary authors who had transformed it into a city beyond the limits of mundane existence, such as Arthur Machen and, of course, William Blake. I came here ready to start revising the manuscript of my novel, sure that it would be greatly improved by being in the streets that Blake had walked.
My love affair with London was passionate from day one. It was what I had dreamt it to be, what I feared it might not be, and more. My favourite books were alive here, and so was the spirit of the authors who had immortalised the city — some, we could even say, hallowed it. My own literary London included, of course, Blake’s London: Soho, St James’s Church in Piccadilly where he was baptised, his Lambeth and those of his works that they had on show back then at the Tate. Although this was mundane London, thriving on power and greed as it has always done, it was also, simultaneously, visionary London, where the material fabric of reality could be seen through for an equally powerful spiritual force to be revealed. The hardship and loneliness I experienced during those first years in the great city were no reason to leave: I had found here what I often called ‘the mirror of my soul’, and the most fertile ground for the development of my voice as a writer.
This meant that, as I started revising my Blakean novel, I found it wanting. So wanting, in fact, that I destroyed its manuscript (both printed and electronic). But I kept all my notes. The structure remained, and so did its aim. It was just that I wasn’t telling it right. The years-long process to rewrite it started. It was a painful one: the struggle for survival meant that I didn’t have enough time or mental space for concentrating on such a complex book. Though I did write other books in those years (poetry, short stories and another, shorter novel), I felt grief and frustration because I couldn’t go forward with the Blakean story.
Notes for the novel’s chapters
Still, I worked intermittently on it and kept as close as I could to Blake. I attended, for instance, the major Blake exhibition at the Tate, which ran from the end of 2000 to February 2001. That exhibition made me redefine the novel, as my understanding of Blake grew much deeper. My memory of that visit is of going round the exhibition for hours in a kind of trance, shaken by the contrasts between the exquisite beauty of Blake’s pictorial work and its violence, moved by the pathos of his endless struggle and the indifference he faced, and stirred by the way he transformed the cruelty and crassness of the mundane into the beauty and might of a greater reality. His was the way to live a life, the only way for a true artist. I was also struck with more poignancy by the utterly unique nature of his pictorial art and his poetry, inextricably joined together.
I bought at the Tate Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Blake, which became a soul companion through my lonely explorations of Blake’s London. It brought home the dimensions of Blake’s struggle in a world that failed to see, to feel and understand; a struggle which was therefore of art and of the spirit, for he knew they couldn’t be separated, and a struggle for transcendence, for the ultimate liberation of man through his imagination, which was ultimately divinity in him. Which other artist had spelled out our ultimate nature so clearly? Ackroyd’s biography guided me through further readings of the prophetic poems, so that my second Penguin copy was now starting to look as battered as the first one.
Some years later, seeing the actual copies of some of Blake’s illuminated poems in the quiet of the Prints and Drawings Department in the British Museum left me in tears: no reproduction will ever be able to show the exquisiteness, the nuances, the delicacy and otherworldly beauty of those pages. You can sense in them, fully alive, the love, the care and the faith with which they were created.
Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com.
In her next post for Finding Blake, Adriana moves deeper into Blake’s London, and her novel takes shape as its characters seek their answers on the borders of the mundane and the visionary, visible and invisible.
Finding Blake welcomes another powerful voice to our explorations. Adriana Díaz Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction and a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. In a compelling series of posts for Finding Blake — marking the publication of her Blakean novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios, in Mexico today — Adriana shares with us her remarkable journey from discovering Blake on a family trip to Texas, immersing herself in his work and her own in Mexico, the USA and London.
When I think of where I first found Blake, the words come to me: “I found William Blake in Hell”. I like the idea.
Hell in this case was a shopping mall in McAllen, Texas, during the last holiday I spent with my family before leaving home. I must have been eighteen. I had heard of Blake before in terms so vague I can’t remember where or how, though I know I was curious.
Now, what was I doing in a shopping mall in McAllen, Texas? And, even more perplexing, what was Blake doing there?
I was born in Guadalajara, in Western Mexico, around the area where the country starts longing to become the north. There are some striking differences between north and south over there, with the north generally looking even more northwards — the ultimate goal being the USA. I’m not sure to what extent this is the case still now, but in my time certain kinds of families had this bizarre idea that going shopping in Texas could be called a holiday. The dogma was that things were so badly made in Mexico (all things: clothing, shoes, make-up, stationery, sweets, LPs, you name it… even people!) that it was necessary to cross to el otro lado (‘the other side’) to get quality stuff that was indispensable for living without sorrow. We made the expedition every year.
Outgrowing the dogma
For years I believed in the dogma, but by the time I made that last trip I had outgrown it. At 16, after having read Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas and A Room of One’s Own, I had decided that I didn’t only ‘like’ writing, but that I would become the real thing.
The discovery of vocation came with the side-effect of coming to thoroughly hate those shopping orgies, and on that last one — with all the drama that a teenager worth the name is capable of — I was thinking in despair of ways of saving my soul and intellect in the midst of that temple to vacuity at which my family, and many others, worshipped every day during those trips. “I don’t want clothes!”, I cried to myself in fury (though deep, deep inside I knew I did want some). “I want the things of the spirit! Where can I go in this godforsaken place to avoid contamination?”
The shopping mall had, believe it or not, a bookshop. And it was browsing its shelves in desperation that I came across the Penguin Classics edition of Blake’s Complete Poems. Maybe it was its thick spine that first called my attention, as I was yearning for pages to literally submerge myself in and swim away. I pulled it out and saw the cover.
I had never seen a Blake illustration before, and now I was suddenly confronted by Death on a Pale Horse: some irate deity, face hard as stone, riding on a white steed, seemingly torn between the powers of darkness and light… and darkness winning. It was powerful. Strange and slightly threatening, so utterly other from anything I had ever seen before. Then I read the back cover, which summarised the trajectory of an artist and poet who had been colossal: a visionary, rebellious, and misunderstood. “This is it,” I thought, and bought it.
Soon Blake would be crossing the border to Mexico with me.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Some years would pass without my seeing any more of Blake’s illustrations. Meanwhile, I endeavoured to read his complete poems. The journey started easily enough, but got more and more complicated as I moved forward. To start with, my Penguin edition displayed poetry in a way I found unnerving: with lines from alternative versions of the poems in brackets, the poems themselves divided according to a ‘plate’ number. I hadn’t understood the way Blake worked, nor in what an extraordinary manner his poems had been originally printed, and I resented the interrupted flow of words.
Then there were the words themselves. I was first drawn by the mirroring drama of the Songs of Innocence and Experience as much as by The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The latter’s prestige as an emblem of seditious poetry had reached even Guadalajara — which perhaps wasn’t that strange, it being in those times such a conservative city that poets there had truly no other choice than burning.
I was a big fan of Jim Morrison, and knowing that The Doors had taken their name from a Blakean verse (or from Aldous Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception, but he had taken it from Blake in any case) put Blake among my favourites way before I could claim I understood him. I was into Rimbaud and Les Chants de Maldoror. Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell seemed to me to be in that league: untamed, daring all conventional notions of good and evil to stand unshaken in the light of fierce lucidity. I was provoked too by the mystery I sensed in even what appeared to be Blake’s most straightforward poems. However, when I got to what we now call his Prophetic Poems, I was utterly baffled.
Changer of worlds
For years too, I don’t think I understood them at all. But I wanted to. One thing I knew: that there was an energy contained in there which, though its core eluded me, had the power to change a world. I was intrigued and irritated by them in equal measure, upset at not being able to crack them open. Not even at that tender age was I so naïve as to believe that poetry could change the world — mainly because you’d first need for ‘the world’ to want to change, which is unusual — but I knew that it could certainly change worlds, and I wanted mine to be among them.
Gradually I got to see some reproductions of Blake’s illustrated poems, which brought one of the various quakes which have forced me to reformulate my appreciation of Blake throughout the decades: here was a man who, not contented with being able to change worlds, had created a whole universe himself. Through the union of word and image, that universe lacked nothing.
His pages formed so much more than a conventional poem, a conventional pictorial image or a conventional book. They were unrefutably alive, their elements woven with threads of most exquisite beauty, ignoring all common wisdom about formal rules. He was fierce like a wild beast, playful like a child. It was then that the text on the back cover of my Penguin edition took its fair dimension — William Blake was a free spirit. Freer than anyone I could think of. Maybe even freer than Rimbaud!
However, even in that discovery there was puzzlement. There were a couple of illustrations I didn’t like at all, particularly if seen against the stunning beauty of his other images, both the most ferocious and the most delicate ones. My general sense was that Blake had been a poet and artist in constant overflow, indomitable, for better or for worse. In this I was close to the truth, though I still didn’t know that much about his life, and it enticed me because I had an instinctive leaning to the force of excess in art (Blake would call it exuberance).
He overwhelmed me, fascinated and provoked me. I wanted Blake. But I didn’t have him.
Adriana Díaz Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com.
In her next post for Finding Blake, Adriana recalls her adventures in breaking into Blake’s world, translating his poems into Spanish, creating a Blakean ‘sound collage’ for a Mexican rock band, and embarking on her third novel. But the real world also breaks in, in the form of a horrific massacre in Chiapas state, and the meaning of Blake’s prophetic poems takes on a new clarity for her.